MotoGP’s extended – by virtue of the Kazakhstan Grand Prix’s cancellation – summer break will be welcomed by its grid of walking wounded and ‘mostly healthies’, but there’s also a drawback.
If you’ve had a bad weekend, you – and your employees, current and prospective – get all the time in the world to think about it and reflect on it and, well, stew.
It’s not fair, as the Dutch TT at Assen is worth the same 37 points as every other round, but it’s clearly a consideration. And there are certain riders who did no favours to their already contractually complicated situations across three days of action in the Netherlands.
And Franco Morbidelli, you have to conclude, is one of them.
Taking away seven points from Assen doesn’t scream disaster – amid an obviously-improved season personally but with an obviously worse Yamaha M1, Morbidelli has been averaging seven points a round anyway. And Fabio Quartararo also scored seven.
But that doesn’t tell the true story. A weekend on from the Sachsenring, where the M1 underwhelmed massively but Morbidelli was pretty much an exact match for Quartararo, the M1 was more competitive – and Morbidelli was nowhere.
He was already puzzled by the low level of grip on Friday, albeit seemed to put down a generally sluggish performance to what he perceived as a 2023 tendency on his side of the garage of not making the right choices to begin the weekend.
“I don’t know why. That’s our style lately,” he said. “We start a bit far away, Friday, then we recover, we catch up, and on Sunday we are there. That’s our style lately, but I cannot pinpoint what it is.”
Except, well, that didn’t happen this time. Lacking rear grip and braking performance, Morbidelli didn’t make it out of Q1, qualifying 11 places behind a rejuvenated Quartararo. Getting trapped in Q1 can sometimes be deceptive in terms of performance, but Morbidelli would’ve needed nearly half a second on both Friday and Saturday to make Q2.
And because the laptime sheets don’t suggest a massive amount of track evolution between Q1 and Q2, the fact Morbidelli’s best lap was over eight tenths down on Quartararo’s Q2 effort was not a good look. Ditto for finishing 15th in the sprint later that day while Quartararo grabbed a Brad Binder penalty-assisted podium.
With all that context, ninth place on Sunday was well-salvaged. But it was an attritional race, said attrition including Quartararo chucking his M1 down the road – and collecting Johann Zarco’s Ducati in the process – while trying to make up for a dreadful start.
Quartararo’s exit prevented any further pace comparisons, and there’s reason to suspect he would’ve anyway fared worse than on Saturday given the track was hotter on Sunday. But it’s hard to see that really sparing Morbidelli in the eyes of his Yamaha bosses because he finished almost 15 seconds down… on the rider ahead of him, LCR Honda’s Takaaki Nakagami, who had served a long-lap penalty during the race.
“Tough race. Tough weekend overall. We’ve been struggling,” he summed up.
“Finally this morning we managed to do a step, and we were confident for the race, to have a good pace and a good performance. Unfortunately in the race the grip was awful. And moreover we had blistering – I think that’s a common problem anyway.
“But… yeah. I was there with Fabio, I saw immediately that the potential was much less. I just tried to bring the bike home in one piece and not make any mistakes, which was very easy today [to make a mistake].”
Morbidelli was not alone in being caught off guard by the levels of grip – he felt “something changed” at the track – though complaints were certainly far from universal.
At 29.335s, his gap to the race winner was the largest of the season’s Sundays, worse even than what it was in the Portimao opener – when it looked like Morbidelli was in for another brutal campaign, before his form to Quartararo took a noticeable upturn.
In Morbidelli’s eyes, that upturn has clearly warranted a Yamaha extension. But there’s little current evidence that Yamaha agrees – given both that its public tone seems to have shifted to a more lukewarm position, and the speculation that it’s actively exploring alternatives.
Assen, you have to logically assume, won’t have helped.
At 28, it isn’t expected that a Yamaha split would mark the end of the MotoGP career of a rider who’d won the Moto2 title and three premier-class races.
His mentor Valentino Rossi and Rossi’s VR46 project are too invested in him. Indeed, a long-time assumption has been that Morbidelli can always find a ride at VR46 Ducati – but that’s likely only true as long as there’s a vacancy. That, though, seems very much unlikely for 2024.
“It’s true that Franco we like, I think Franco with our team and our bike, at the moment I think we can make a very good job,” team manager Pablo Nieto told MotoGP.com at the Sachsenring.
“But this is another option. At the moment we have to keep working, to keep pushing for our ideas. But it’s true that Franco is in our mind.”
VR46’s “ideas” are retaining Marco Bezzecchi and Luca Marini, with Bezzecchi perhaps promoted to factory-spec machinery. Staying at VR46 is also Bezzecchi’s public preference – he is not so enamored by what he seems to perceive as a sideways move to Pramac.
But even if a VR46 vacancy doesn’t arise, another within Ducati’s line-up might – and it’s not one that was previously seriously pitched as a potential Morbidelli destination.
“As for Gresini, Alex Marquez is confirmed, while [Fabio] Di Giannantonio has been given a period of time to see if his contract will be extended or not,” Ducati sporting chief Paolo Ciabatti told Sky Italia at Assen, disclosing a Marquez 2024 deal that hadn’t been made official but has seemed a total no-brainer.
But as for potential replacements for Di Giannantonio, who has made progress – but only incremental progress – in his sophomore season and crashed in both Assen races? “I think [manager Carlo] Pernat has come forward for Tony Arbolino and there has been a preliminary chat with the VR46 Academy about Morbidelli.”
Arbolino, who is having a really good third season in Moto2 and leads the championship, would surely feel hard done by, but a Gresini ride seems an attractive and logical destination for Morbidelli. Even if it’s a year-old Ducati, Enea Bastianini had made hay with that last year, and Marquez has been competitive – albeit not scoring as regularly as he should have been for a variety of reasons – this year.
It would be a graceful Yamaha dismount for a rider who’s clearly still got it, having showed that on multiple occasions this year. Just not at Assen.